In the nineteenth century, the nascent field of evolutionary biology produced recapitulation theory: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The idea was, in a manner of speaking, that the developmental story of an individual embryo replays the evolutionary history of the embryo’s species. So an embryonic mammal, for example, was thought to take the guise of a fish, an amphibian, a reptile, and a bird before beginning to look like a mammal.
This notion has since been discredited as a scientific explanation for the origin of species. But it remains powerful for me as myth because it resonates with certain of my experiences: like all myth in a Universe pervaded by uncanny and delightful resemblances of which we Pagans like to recite, “as above, so below; as within, so without; as the Universe, so the soul,” recapitulation theory can sometimes prove useful in understanding and retelling our lives’ stories.
Personally, I find that recapitulation theory helps me—in a roundabout sort of way—trace the arc of the story of my spiritual development.
Going Off Script
Before I became Pagan, the script that applied to my life had been set forth thousands of years ago as inscrutable holy writ: the Christian Bible. When I became Pagan, I set that script aside. At that point in my life, full of skepticism, I wasn’t ready just to pull a replacement script off a shelf in the library of Paganism’s existing great traditions. Yet I didn’t want to switch to continuous improvisation—I felt that if I were to live life without any script, without any guiding spiritual framework other than day-to-day inclinations, I would find myself less playing out my highest spiritual potential than becoming simply a marionette made to dance by the strings of the decidedly unspiritual system we have manufactured in modernity to tame our humanity. Thriving as a spiritual being, today as always, requires the liberty created by a certain measure of self-imposed discipline.
So I settled on an in-between approach: I would adopt a new script, a new consilient worldview and coherent lifeway for my whole spiritual being, but it would be one that I would compose for myself. In doing so, I’ve found that if you set out to write such a script, you may play out a drama of “converse recapitulation”: phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny. In other words, the development of your branch or tradition may go through the same stages that you’re going through in your own personal development.
A Spiral Dance
In Paganism, we often describe the archetypical storyline of spirit as a spiral dance, a process of working from the outside to the inside, revisiting points on the circle in turn but at progressively deeper levels, never reaching an absolute center. As this is true of individuals, so I think this is true of traditions.
When I first began to call myself Reform Pagan, that label comprised certain discrete principles, such as openness to new ideas and a sense that all persons have equal spiritual potential, irrespective of initiatory status or lineage. Over time, I refined and systematized the principles, which coalesced into what are now Reform Paganism’s Fifteen Theses.
This conceptual framework guided me in creating concrete practices around the quintessentially Pagan—and human—pursuits of Life, Truth, Love, Power, and Divinity, informing Reform Paganism’s practical framework of the Five Elements. Since then, true to the archetypical pattern of deepening through a spiral dance, the Five Elements have become more central to Reform Paganism than are the Fifteen Theses.
I discovered in writing the script for my Reform Pagan spirituality and building the inter-traditional community we have come to call the Pagan Renewal, however, that while the Fifteen Theses serve as general principles for us to consider and Five Elements help guide our shared practice, these are just a framework. And a framework by itself is not enough to unify with purpose.
For me to find unifying purpose for my developing spirituality, and for the Pagan Renewal itself to find unifying purpose, we have had to spiral deeper still. The center that we’ve found is our conviction, vision, and mission. Though these came last in my own developmental story and in the Pagan Renewal’s evolutionary history, if the Fifteen Theses, Five Elements, and our conviction, vision, and mission—all together—form the Stele of our new branch of the Great Tree of Paganism, the last prong of this triad—our conviction, vision, and mission—constitutes the living Pith.
In this blog,* I plan to trace—and extend—the arc of my spiritual ontogeny and of Pagan Renewal’s phylogeny, spiraling even deeper into each component of the Stele of our branch of Paganism. Moving from the outermost layers inward, I’ll begin by unpacking the Fifteen Theses, then I’ll examine the Five Elements, and then I’ll explore our conviction, vision, and mission.
At the same time, this blog is about more than just my story and that of the Pagan Renewal: in our Universe pervaded, as I’ve said, by uncanny and delightful resemblances, I hope my writing here will bring you insight relevant to the ongoing saga of your own spiritual development.
Also published on Medium.